This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 17:5–10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

Earlier this week, friends in my Irish-language group noted that this week marked the anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death at 27 years old. (We have lots of interesting conversations in our group, a surprising small percentage of which are about or in Irish.) As a joking tribute, I translated one of Joplin’s better-known lyrics into Irish: O Thiarna, nach cheannóidh tú mé Mercedes Benz? Readers probably don’t need to know any Gaeilge to know what that says, although I don’t vouch for the complete accuracy of the translation. That’s the safest position when it comes to translating from or to Irish, trust me.

Reading today’s brief Gospel passage reminds me of Joplin’s song, which manages to critique consumerism, hypocrisy, selfishness, and outcome-based faith all in one unforgettable, four-stanza, a cappella performance. Both this passage and Joplin’s song cuts to the heart of our life in faith by asking tough questions. How do we pray? And just as importantly, do we approach God, or demand that He approach us?

The passage starts out with the apostles asking Jesus to “increase our faith.” The request sounds as though the apostles think it is Jesus’ responsibility alone to increase it. Faith is indeed a gift from the Lord, but it is a gift that requires cooperation and formation on the part of the recipient. The apostles have already been given faith, plus they have Christ among them as a teacher. It is difficult to imagine how the Father could be more generous or provide them with more assistance to have them work to increase their faith.

Thus we have Jesus’ response to the apostles, and to all those who expect salvation to be handed to them. It is not enough, Jesus teaches, to just do what you’re told. One does not get an invitation to attend the banquet of eternal life merely by doing “what we were obliged to do.” It takes more than that to embrace salvation; it takes a genuine effort to form one’s self to the will of the Lord, rather than ask the Lord to form Himself to ours.

This is what faith is — trusting in God beyond ourselves. We only see our own agendas, desires, hurts, and ambitions, not the Lord’s plans for all. There’s nothing wrong with Mercedes Benz cars, color TVs, and nights on the town per se, but those aren’t the point of life. There’s nothing much good about violence, ruin, and misery either, about which we hear in our first reading from Habakkuk today. Those are the circumstances of a fallen world, but as the prophet teaches, we must have faith that the Lord has our best interests at heart in the end as He opens the paths for us to reach Him:

Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

Now, that’s not an easy lesson to hear, let alone to follow. We are used to an action/reaction paradigm in which we see immediate benefit from correct choices and immediate detriment from bad choices. This is what confuses Habakkuk in the beginning of that first reading, when the prophet laments the consequences of the fallen world. “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord,” he proclaims. We look at this and wonder what the point is of forming ourselves to the Lord, and even more so when we don’t get the Mercedes Benz.

That misses the point, of course; the point of prayer and of faith is not to see what the Lord will give us in material wealth, or even spiritual health when we do not work to make ourselves spiritually healthy. The transitory circumstances of our lives should not affect our faith in the Lord, but should push us even more to form ourselves to Him. The Lord wants us to persevere to come to Him for salvation, prepared for eternal life rather than reacting to temporal circumstances. All of this will pass, just as surely as it ever has; all that will be left is the Lord and the status of our formation to Him.

That is how we should pray, and the outcome for which we should work. As St. Paul reminded Timothy in our second reading:

God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

God didn’t give us a Mercedes Benz, either. But the good news is that we don’t need it to travel to the Lord.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Communion of the Apostles,” late 19th century, by James Tissot. Currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.